Your job title?
Air Traffic Controller
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
My job is to safely guide aircraft across the congested upper airspace (above 25,000feet) of North-west Germany]
Describe a typical day?
What are the daily activities you carry out/ daily structure or routine events?
A typical day lasts 7.5 hours. I alternate between being a radar controller and a coordinating controller. As a radar controller, I speak to the pilots, clearing them to the best direct routing for their destination, climbing them to their requested cruising altitude, descend others into airports below my airspace, turn them left or right to keep them safely separated from other aircraft, provide information on any turbulence reports in my sectors, give information on CB’s (Cumulonimbus clouds), etc. As a coordinating controller, I will typically assist my radar controller by telephoning neighbouring sectors or centres to try to coordinate different things, like a better short cut, issue a level into the upper airspace from traffic departing the many major airports below us (Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Brussels, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, etc
What do you find most interesting ?
Every day is different! There is always a new challenge either with traffic complexity or from the weather conditions. I also love that I can speak to pilots from all over the world. My colleagues also are from all over Europe so it is always very interesting!
What’s not so cool? What are the main challenges?
I work in shifts, and sometimes that can interfere in your private life. The earliest shift starts at 06:30 in the morning, and the latest evening shift finishes at 23:00. Also the night shift from 23:00 – 06:30 can be difficult! You can be required to work weekends, nights, on your birthday on Christmas Day!
How do you use mathematics within your job?
Typically I use mathematics when calculating rates of climb or rates of descent to get traffic above or below other aircraft in the sectors. Descending aircraft need to be at certain defined points at 25,000 feet. Sometimes they enter the sector at much higher altitudes, so I need to identify which other aircraft will affect the descending aircraft. I need to quickly identify how many minutes I have to get the descending aircraft down, and calculate quickly how many feet per minute I need to instruct the descending aircraft to do.
Similarly for climbing aircraft, I try to issue an altitude that is safe for the aircraft to climb to without enforcing it to climb at a higher rate. However, sometimes I need to make sure he will climb above crossing aircraft so a quick calculation needs to be made, taking into account how many minutes I have, how many thousands of feet need to be climbed, and also the type and performance of the aircraft in question
What type of mathematics do you use to solve problems?
Typically arithmetic. Basic but accurate calculations sometimes need to be made in a few seconds.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
After finishing my maths degree, I didn’t see myself working the 9-5 job in a suit! Air traffic control I think suits me perfectly and it’s my peers and supervisors who most influence my career direction
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Absolutely! I have traveled a lot over the last 10 years and intend to do lots more in the future. Even though I work shifts, there is still a lot of time to indulge in pastimes and to visit friends. In terms of career progression opportunities, there are many avenues available to me, whether it be part of the supervisory team, in training new controllers, in safety,… there are lots of interesting opportunities available.
What subjects did you take (and why did you take them?) in school and did they influence your career path?
For my Leaving Certificate I took Irish, English, Maths, German, Accounting, Business Organisation and Geography. I chose these because I was interested in these subjects, and at the time I was thinking that a career in Accountancy or in Business was where I would be most happy. Of course I was wrong! But my advice to students now would be to study subjects that you are interested in and get the best possible grades in those subjects.
What is your education to date?
I went to secondary school in the Convent of Mercy Secondary School in Kilbeggan in Co. Westmeath. I did my Leaving Certificate in 1997. After that, I went to study Mathematics in Trinity College in Dublin and graduated in 2002. After graduating from Trinity I felt I was ready to start working and was lucky enough to find out about a training course for new Air Traffic Controllers which started in Luxembourg in early 2004. After completing the 8 months of initial training there, I moved to where my current employer is located in Maastricht in the Netherlands. After 2 more years of training there, I qualified as an Air Traffic Controller and have been very happy ever since!
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
There is no course that is best suited to becoming an Air Traffic Controller. In fact the minimum requirements are a secondary school education, fluency in English, and the ability to make quick decisions under pressure while remaining calm!
Did you like maths at school?
I particularly like maths at school and I was good at it. Integration and Differentiation were challenging, but I found after having a good sit down and think about it, it eventually made sense!
What aspects of the mathematics curriculum or mathematics courses have proven most important for your job?
Were there any courses or specialty branch of mathematics that were particularly relevant?
I found that I was always good at mental arithmetic which I use every day with my work. While I don’t necessarily use the concepts which I studied in my maths degree in Trinity during my work, I find that that course trained me to have a more analytical mind, and obviously that has helped me in my day-to-day tasks of problem solving in the congested skies above Germany!
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
What qualities / skills / values / interests / education would someone need to have to ‘fit’ your job? What can give them an ‘edge’?
You need to be mentally mature. It is a responsible job yet very rewarding. You must be eager to learn. Honesty is also important. You need to be able to identify when you are struggling and to ask for help. A good ability to calculate simple arithmetic quickly is also important, and to be able to do that with other distractions around you. The ability to choose the one solution which could solve 2 or 3 different problems is also key.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Include any similar types of work that might help provide a ‘taster’ for the position.
For anyone considering becoming an Air Traffic Controller, it might be a good idea to contact the local airport, whether it be a small or a large airport, to try to arrange a visit to the Operations Room or the Tower. Have a look there and ask all the questions that you have. I’m sure that everyone there will tell you what I believe, and that is that Air Traffic Control is one of the best jobs in the world!